Tag Archives: research

Shape coexistence and nuclear physics at TRIUMF

Our group didn’t know what to expect as we trekked across the rainy parking lot towards the modest entrance of TRIUMF at UBC. The small blue sign seemed like an almost comical understatement to the immense laboratories looming behind it. Having no physicists among us, we thought we were in over our heads with this research. We carried on regardless, and were greeted by friendly faces when we made it inside.


TRIUMF sign Source: self

We were met by Dr. Thomas Procter, a postdoctoral fellow at TRIUMF. Dr. Procter had invited us to the facility and offered to tour us round the facility. Not only did Dr. Procter give us valuable insight into his own research, but he introduced us to the world of nuclear physics at UBC.

TRIUMF Cyclotron

TRIUMF Cyclotron Source: triumf.ca

Nuclear physics is the study of atomic nuclei their characteristics and interactions with the world around them. It is this brand of physics that TRIUMF specializes in. TRIUMF is home to the largest cyclotron in the world: a gigantic machine used to generate exotic nuclei for (among other things) studies in astro- and nuclear physics.

For example, DRAGON (Detector of Recoils And Gammas Of Nuclear reactions) apparatus at TRIUMF is a machine used to examine the formation of the nuclei we see commonly on Earth in distant supernovae (Consider rephrasing sentence). In some cases, the specifics behind the formation of these nuclei would remain largely unknown if not for DRAGON. While we got only a brief insight into the functioning of DRAGON, we were fortunate enough to have a more elaborate look at some of the nuclear structure research at TRIUMF done by Dr. Procter.

Dr.Procter's set up Source: Self

Dr.Procter’s Set Up Source: Self

Dr. Procter is interested in a phenomenon that occurs in the nucleus called shape coexistence. The particular research paper of his that we looked at involved the isotope chain of rubidium 98. Dr. Procter and his team used TRIUMF’s powerful cyclotron to generate many isotopes of rubidium for their study. The video below gives an overview of nuclear shape detection by laser spectroscopy and some of the theory involved in Dr. Procter’s research.

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It is important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the theory involved in Dr. Procter’s work before attempting to understand his methods. The following podcast gives a general overview into the laser spectroscopy used in Procter’s work and at TRIUMF.

Unless you are in the field, particle physics is not something that occurs to most people on a daily basis. One could argue that it has little relevance to their life, but in reality, it may be the most relevant science out there. There would be no life without particular interactions between particular particles that that hold us together. In essence, particle physicists ask the big question: “What are the building blocks that make up everything we can perceive (including us) and why do they behave the way that they do?”


What are you doing to the microbes in your gut?



Lactobacillus casei, a microbe found in dairy products, the human intestine and mouth. Source: Flickr, user: ajc1

There are a hundred trillion cells in our body. You might think that most of the cells are human, but in fact, 90% of these cells are tiny microorganisms like bacteria that we can’t see with the naked eye! But where do these microbes come from, and what are they doing in our body?


Source: Wikimedia Commons, user: BruceBlaus

All mammals, including humans, are usually born free of bacteria and other microbes. However, shortly after birth, babies become colonized by microbes that come from their parents, the food they eat, and the environment. The colonization of our gut by microbes continues throughout our entire lifespan. The population of microbes in our gut tends to become more complex as we get older and start consuming solid food.

Now that we know a bit about how we obtain these microbes, how are they affecting us?

 Most of us reading this blog have “Westernized” or modern lifestyles, where we have access to clean water, processed food, modern medicine, and hygiene. This does not mean that our environment is completely sterile, but as it turns out, the gut microbe population is less diverse in people in Westernized populations compared to rural populations.

 So why is this important?

Lower diversity of microbes in our gut is associated with autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as conditions like multiple sclerosis and autism. It may also explain why there is a higher prevalence of conditions like asthma and allergies in modern society.

 Watch the following video which showcases our interview with Dr. Laura Parfrey, a researcher in the Departments of Botany and Zoology at UBC, to find out more about how our lifestyle influences our gut, and more importantly, what we can do to make our gut microbes more diverse.

Source: own work

Dr. Parfrey recently found that the diversity of gut microbes differs between Westernized populations and rural populations. She specifically looked at eukaryotic microbes, which are essentially all the microbes that aren’t bacteria, and found that the Western population had a much less diverse set of microbes! This may help explain the increasing prevalence of autoimmune diseases and allergies in modern society. According to Dr. Parfrey, there is still a lot that we still don’t know about how microbes affect our health, and she explains further research questions and why she finds her research interesting, in the following podcast:

Source: own work

So, there are lots of microbes in our body, especially the gut, and they’re affecting our health more than we’ve thought previously! In order to keep our gut microbes healthy and diverse, people can avoid overemphasizing hygiene with their kids; and as for adults, people can incorporate more diverse sources of food into their diets, especially diverse sources of complex carbohydrates.


Miracle Cures? Not Quite.

Hey, remember that miracle baby that was found to be HIV-free?

No? What about the HIV-killing bee venom?

How about the cure for all cancer, courtesy of you friendly neighbourhood mole-rat? They all sound so promising, don’t they? All the talk with “foresee[ing] a day when the … treatment could give … a lifetime free of toxic and costly antiviral drugs”  and “radically and potentially life-saving treatment[s]“.  At this rate, it sounds like the new “wonder-drugs” are just around the corner;  and when they hit the pharmacies and hospitals, the world will be a much, much better place.

So where’s the cancer drugs? Why aren’t pharmaceutical companies scrambling to raise beehives to harvest bee venom? And why are doctors still prescribing antivirals to HIV+ patients? What happened to those “major breakthroughs” and “game-changers”? To make a long story short, science doesn’t work like that. The science behind new drugs is a well-tested and extensively researched, and it follows a rigorous process.

LONG ROAD TO A NEW DRUG” by Lizanne Koch – own work. Via Wikibooks.








The development of a new drug begins with a breakthrough in research – things like a new therapy target, or a new way of treating a condition. A classic example of this is the key development in HAART therapy towards controlling the HIV virus, as shown in the video in detail.

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After first observing AIDS in the US in 1981, it took two years for researchers to confirm the source of the symptoms as the HIV virus in 1983, and another 4 years for the FDA to approve azidothymidine/AZT,  one of the first antiviral drugs effective against suppressing HIV. The video describes the molecular mechanism of AZT:

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Of course, AZT was ripe with side-effects; it took until 1991 for researchers to find effective antivirals which minimized the side-effects.  The entire process to develop today’s HAART took just over 10 years  – hardly “around the corner”. And this is a process repeated by many of the novel drugs proposed in academia  – it takes DECADES, if not years to develop a drug that is safe and effective.

So, where do all those “break-throughs” fit in? Well… That’s the thing. Even though science makes discoveries in cutting-edge fields on a daily basis, it takes months, if not years of follow-up experiments to confirm the results. Adding this to the arduous process of drug development, it may be a long, long time before a viable drug is developed, assuming the new proposed drug holds up in the experiments and the clinical trials. Of course, one can only hope that the breakthrough doesn’t turn out to be a false-positive, like the (ex-)HIV-free baby.

As for the daily media sensationalist titles, they may sound hopeful and optimistic (not to suggest that they’re not), but the point is to take them with a grain of salt. After all, a disease takes years to be understood scientifically, and longer still to develop a working treatment. And of course, always remember:

source: XKCD

Souce: XKCD

– James L.